The Supreme Court held that three factory surveys conducted by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) did not constitute a seizure of the entire work force under the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court also held that the individual questioning regarding citizenship of the respondents, U.S. citizens and legal residents, did not constitute a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. (Read the opinion here.)
The majority opinion written by Justice Rehnquist described how INS agents walked through factories and questioned workers about their citizenship in an attempt to find undocumented noncitizens. If the employee responded to the INS agents by saying that he was a U.S. citizen, the agents would move on to another employee. However, if the factory worker gave an unsatisfactory reply or admitted to being an alien, the INS agent asked for the employee’s immigration papers.
The Court explained that the Fourth Amendment protects individuals from unreasonable seizures and detention by the police. The Court further explained that an unreasonable seizure occurs when, considering all the surrounding circumstances of the detention, a reasonable person believes he does not have the freedom to leave during the questioning. During the surveys, several INS agents stationed themselves near the factory building’s exits. The Court rejected the claim that the placement of INS agents at the exits of the factories constrained the employees’ freedom to leave. To the contrary, the Court found that the INS agents did not prevent the employees from continuing to work and from moving around the factory. The Court concluded that a seizure of the entire work forces did not occur. Consequently, it found no violation of the Fourth Amendment.
The Court also held that the interrogation of the individual respondents did not constitute a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. The Court again applied the reasonable person test. Although the employees argued that they suffered psychologically from the questioning, the Court did not find that they reasonably feared being arrested and found that they reasonably did not feel constrained. The Court asserted that the INS did not constrain their physical movement. The Court further supported its decision by noting the brevity of the questioning of the individual workers.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Stevens agreed that the record did not establish that the workers could have reasonably believed they did not have the freedom to leave during the INS questioning.
Justice Powell, concurring in part, expressed the difficulty of determining whether the surveys resulted in a seizure. However, Justice Powell noted that the Court did not have to answer the close question because if a seizure did occur, it was permissible under a previous Court decision. Justice Powell compared the questioning of the factory workers to the interrogation of motorists in permanent checkpoints in United States v. Martinez-Fuerte. In Martinez-Fuerte, the Court held that stopping and questioning motorists did not violate the Fourth Amendment because the Government had a substantial interest in apprehending undocumented noncitizens. Justice Powell asserted that the questioning of the factory workers also created an important governmental interest of finding undocumented noncitizens. Justice Powell found a minimal intrusion of the employees’ expectation of privacy.
Justice Brennan, joined by Justice Marshall, concurred and dissented in part. Justice Brennan agreed with the Court’s holding that a seizure of the entire factory did not occur. However, Justice Brennan found that the individual questioning of the factory workers constituted a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Justice Brennan noted that the surrounding circumstances in the record created an environment where a reasonable person would not believe he had the freedom to leave. Justice Brennan supported his opinion by emphasizing the surprise aspect of the surveys, the handcuffing of individuals after an unsatisfactory response, and the positioning of INS agents at exits that prevented anyone from leaving the factory. Justice Brennan agreed that the government had a substantial interest in locating undocumented noncitizens, but also stated the survey greatly intruded on the workers’ privacy rights. Justice Brennan concluded his dissent by proposing that the INS adopt a policy of questioning only workers they reasonably suspect of being undocumented noncitizens.Authored by: Jessica Nicole Flores, Cornell Law School